Sid Griffin (Coal Porters) on New York Dolls, Everly Brothers, Bill Monroe, and Peter Case
The Everly Brothers and the New York Dolls made two very different musical statements, but each group had a lasting impact on Sid Griffin. He points to an Everly Brothers concert in September 1985 at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles as the best rock and roll concert he has ever seen.
“I had front-row center seats that were a gift from my pals,” Griffin recalls, “because I am such a huge Everlys fan. Always will be.
“Their harmonies were superb – just out of this world. The songs were some of the greatest in the rock genre. The band was brilliant down to a man, and the warmth of the audience was so obvious you could have set fire to a match with it.”
Griffin, who was frontman for the Long Ryders before taking the lead for Coal Porters, says a New York Dolls show in Columbia, South Carolina – “perhaps in late 1975” – was a different type of concert, and hugely influential.
“The venue was small one,” he says, “and its name I cannot remember. I had never gone to this venue and haven’t returned since. The New York Dolls were soon to break up, although I didn’t know this at the time. They were not the greatest musicians, but they had masses and masses of stage presence and good songs, and passionately delivered those songs. It was unforgettable and a signpost on the way to the punk movement.”
Griffin’s band the Coal Porters play bluegrass, so of course they owe a nod to the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Griffin saw him and his Bluegrass Boys perform at the Convention Center in Myrtle Beach, SC, in October 1974.
“I shook Monroe’s hand and Kenny Baker’s hand that night,” he says. “Bob Black was on banjo, Ralph Lewis was on guitar, and I later found out Randy Davis was the bass player. Baker and Black played like monsters that night. Like monsters!
“Monroe and Baker came out almost immediately after the concert to mingle with the crowd and shake hands. They were extraordinarily friendly to all.
“I had seen bluegrass bands before,” he continues, “and saw Monroe in 1971 in my native Louisville, Kentucky. But the guys were on fire the evening in South Carolina three years later. And I remember they did a song called ‘McKinley’s March,’ and I was stunned by it. Their ensemble timing was breathtaking. I did not hear the song again till 30 years later, and yet, I swear, I could still recognize it when I finally heard it the second time. Now, how amazing? How cool is that? It shows how well they played it.”
Griffin says live shows by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, at The O2 in London in 2010 and the Stagecoach festival in Indio, CA, in 2011, influenced him as a bluegrass musician.
“When I saw Monroe, I did not play bluegrass or the mandolin. I played rock and roll – I sang and played electric guitar. However, when I saw Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder a quarter-century later, I was playing bluegrass. Skaggs’ mandolin technique, while not textbook perfect, blew me away. He had the three Ts; tone, touch, and personal technique.”
“The passion was matched but not eclipsed by the technique and vice versa. Usually you get a lot of one or the other – not both.”
Griffin says the best folk concert he’s ever witnessed was by Scottish singer-songwriter Dick Gaughan. “I wanna say Pete Seeger for sentiment’s sake, but I must say Dick Gaughan, in a small northern Italian town, in the courtyard of a castle, in May 2008. All by his lonesome, this Scottish Communist kept the crowd pleased and thrilled for a good 75 minutes. He was amazing. He even spoke to the crowd as he tuned up into weird modal tunings. And the power of the righteousness of his songs was something to behold.”
But it’s been numerous shows by Peter Case that have most influenced his musicianship. “London, Los Angeles, Louisville,” he says, “any of a good dozen shows Peter did in the last 10 years. Peter evolved into a guy who, like Dick Gaughan, [knows] the importance of keeping the audience’s attention when you are solo.”
He knows to “never have dead air and to always give the audience something to look at. And Peter’s songs are so great. He has one called ‘Still Playin’,’ from about 1995, that I consider my theme song.”